Legally Divorced, But Free To Remarry
February 04, 2002
Some are teaching that civil court action is the only procedure that God recognizes, in our country, for putting away one's mate. Their argument makes civil law procedure the determinate in establishing a person's right of remarriage, rather than divine permission. If their position is correct, then no legally divorced person has a right to remarry, for Jesus said, "whoever marries her that is put away commits adultery" (Matt. 19:9).
I became especially concerned with this position when I saw it lead some brethren to argue that a godless fornicator may nullify an innocent mate's right of remarriage merely by winning a civil divorce case against them. Their conclusion is flawed due to a simple misconception. Rather than seeing civil action as one possible procedure for putting away a mate, they see it as the only means of doing so, at least in North America. This position forces them to conclude that an innocent person cannot remarry if their fornicating mate legally divorced them.
I deny this position, and maintain that the right of remarriage is determined, not by a civil court ruling, but by God. I contend that the right of remarriage is not determined by court records, but by God's reckoning of the marriage bond. This article emphasizes an established scriptural principle that some legally divorced people do have the right to remarry. This proves that there is something besides the "legal action" that determines the right of remarriage.
"Married" Versus "Bound"
The Bible teaches the possibility of a person being legally married to one person while being bound to another (Mk. 6:17-18; Rom. 7:2-3). God-approved marriages always involve a man and a woman who are bound to each other, not to other people. We sometimes use the words eligible and ineligible to describe marriageable people. Our present civil law considers all people eligible for marriage who are not already married. However, God has a more limited definition of "eligibility" than our modern legislators do. Biblically speaking, there are only three classes of people who are eligible for marriage:
1. One who has never been married before (Matthew 19:4-6)
Note that in each case, the marriage bond is what determines the right of marriage. Those who were never before married, are free to marry, because God had never bound them to anyone subsequent to their current marriage. The innocent person, who puts away a sexually immoral mate, has a right to remarry, because the innocent person activated a divine right, allowing divorce and remarriage. The person, whose spouse dies, has a right to remarry because God looses the marriage bond at death.
For the sake of stimulating more thought and study on this subject, I want to consider some examples of people, who were legally divorced, yet due to various circumstances, either retained, or regained the right of remarriage. These examples all have something in common. Notice that in each example, conditions existed that affected the marriage bond. As we shall see, in these cases, no matter what court action may have previously been taken, a legally divorced person is now free to remarry!
Example #1 - A woman divorces her husband for no scriptural cause and marries an ineligible man. This new husband realizes that he has no scriptural right to marriage. He wants to do what is right, so he divorces this woman. In the absence of any action on the part of her first husband, she has remained bound to him throughout her second marriage. (Compare Herodias' being bound to Philip, in Mark 6:17-18). This is an example of a woman who was legally divorced, but according to the principle in 1 Corinthians 7:11, she may remarry her original husband. She retained the right to remarry even though she was legally divorced. Marital rights are not determined by civil court action.
Example #2 - An ineligible man marries an eligible woman. The ineligible man learns from Matthew 19:9 that he has no right to be married, because his divorce was without scriptural cause. Like the man in example one, he wants to do what is right, so he informs his wife of the situation, and divorces her. What is her marital status? She is legally divorced, but since no marriage bond was ever formed between her and her illegitimate companion, she is free to marry another. (If anyone objects to this conclusion let them show who the woman is bound to, that would prohibit her from marrying another.) Though legally divorced, this woman is free to remarry. Marital rights are not determined by civil court action.
Example #3 - A man divorced his wife for no scriptural cause, but he later died. She is legally divorced. However, according to Romans 7:2-3, the marriage bond is dissolved with the death of the spouse, giving her the right to remarry. Though she was legally divorced, yet she now has the right to remarry. God's permission for her to remarry is based upon the status of the marriage bond, not upon the action of the courts. Her husband's death did not change the fact that she was divorced! If her marital rights were determined by the circumstances of the legal divorce, then her husband's death would have made no change to her marital rights.
Romans 7:2-3 demonstrates clearly that it is not the "legal action" that determines marital rights, but the status of the marriage bond. Let us remember that Jesus said a "put away" person cannot rightly remarry. Paul said the put away person could remarry, if their spouse had died! The conclusion is simple. Those who argue that civil court action is what determines the right of remarriage, have Jesus and Paul contradicting each other! Of course, those who acknowledge the truth will understand that it is not the court procedure that establishes the right of remarriage - it is God's treatment of the marriage bond. Romans 7:2-3 provides permission for a legally divorced person to remarry.
Example #4 - In early April of 2001, the Netherlands passed legislation recognizing same-sex marriages. They are the first country to pass such godless legislation. A mass wedding of homosexuals and lesbians at the Amsterdam Town Hall marked the day the new legislation passed into law. It was presided over by the city's mayor.
Let us say that, among those newly married homosexual couples, were a couple named Adam and Steve. In Amsterdam, Adam is just as married to Steve, as he would have been to Eve. However, there is trouble! Steve meets Bob and decides to divorce Adam in order to marry Bob. In that country, and under their laws, Adam is a legally divorced man. However, there is a positive note to the story. This whole experience has caused Adam to rethink his views about homosexuality. He meets Eve and decides to marry her. But, wait a minute! What about Adam's marital status? After all, He has been legally divorced! According to some of our brethren, Adam cannot marry Eve, because he was divorced. However, according to God's marriage law, Adam does have the right to marry Eve, because he was never bound to Steve in the first place! Though Adam was legally divorced, yet he retains the right of remarriage.
Example #5 - For this example, I shall borrow heavily from the pen of brother Harry Osborne. He cites the particular circumstance of a woman in the Jewish culture during the first century. Harry writes,
"Under the law, her husband could dismiss her with a written decree, but she could not write a decree to initiate a divorce. If a first century Jewish man met and had sexual relations with a woman other than his wife, decided he liked the new woman better and gave his wife a bill of divorcement, what would the wife's status be? Some brethren would automatically view her as the "put away party" who had no right of remarriage. If not, why not?
"However, let us say that the wife knew of her husband's adultery, failed to get him to repent of such, determined she could not continue as his wife, expressed her determination and the real reason for the breakup of the marriage and then took action to depart from the union because of her husband's violation of God's law. Though she was denied any civil, legal or cultural procedure, has she not met in principle the very things necessary for her to rightly "put away" or "put asunder" as stated in Matthew 19? In such a case, man's law cannot overrule the principles stated by God in Scripture."
Example #6 - We shall now consider the scenario that is at the heart of this entire controversy: the case of an innocent person who loses a civil divorce case to a fornicating mate. Legally speaking, she is the divorced party. However, as we have demonstrated in the above examples, being legally divorced does not necessarily negate one's right to remarry. Other factors must be considered.
As we noted above, the death of one's mate extends a divine permission for one to remarry. Other than death, fornication (sexual immorality) is the only other act that may break the marriage bond, granting permission for one to remarry. When a married person commits fornication, God allows their innocent partner the right to put them away, and remarry (Matt. 5:32; 19:9). This right of the innocent party to divorce and remarry necessarily involves their permission by God to do so. Of course, the innocent party may choose not to avail himself of this permission, and either continue with the fornicating mate, or he may remain celibate. Either way, God has granted this permission to the innocent party. He did not grant this permission to fornicators and judges, He granted it to innocent people whose mate's have committed fornication against them.
In the exception clause recorded in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9, Jesus extended a marriage privilege to an innocent person whose mate committed fornication. The right of remarriage is determined by the state of the marriage bond, and God controls the binding and loosing of that bond (Matt. 19:6). However, in marriages where fornication has been commited, God's treatment of the marriage bond is conditioned upon the intentions and actions of the innocent party. God does not automatically dissolve the marriage bond at the point of fornication. He will only react to the innocent mate's decision. If the innocent mate forgives the fornicator, or if the innocent mate chooses to do nothing, then the bond remains intact. However, if the innocent party "puts" the fornicator "away" because of their fornication, God recognizes the innocent party's choice, and releases him from the bond. Neither the fornicator, nor the civil judge has the ability to strip the innocent mate of his divinely bestowed privilege. He may relinquish it himself, but civil courts cannot take it from him.
The conclusion is simple - legal action does not determine marital rights. One may be legally divorced and still possess the God-given right to remarry. Civil laws and social customs do not supersede divine law. A put away person has no right to remarry, but before forbidding one to marry, let us examine their circumstances and determine whether or not justice has been denied, and a divine liberty has been ignored.
In his book on "The Seven Churches," William Ramsey wrote,
"We have so grown in the lapse of centuries and the greater refinement of thought as to be able to hold apart in our minds the two conceptions; but the ancients regarded the State or the city and its religion as two aspects of one thing. So again, to the ancients every association of human beings had its religious side, and could not exist if that side were destroyed."
I fear that some have drifted back into the error of these "ancients." They see "state" and "religion" as "two aspects of the same thing." We must avoid this trap. Civil laws must be respected and followed only to the degree that they allow us to obey God. With regard to marriage and divorce procedure, we should follow civil rules and social customs so long as they accommodate us in doing what the Bible allows (Rom. 13:1-7; Acts 5:29). However, when civil law fails to facilitate in such matters, we must default to whatever procedures and mechanisms may best serve us.